Preparing Your Mental Foundation: acting

Everyone’s process is personal, and on top of that, not everyone who attends a stage combat workshop is a professional actor, so this post will outline a few different strategies that may help you prepare for your workshop.

But first, what to expect. As mentioned in the scenes post, there are a few different ways you will be asked to approach the framework of your scenes at the FDC Nationals (other workshops have their own way of handling the performance test). You might choose your own text, you may be assigned text by your instructor, and you may be asked to select music to perform your fight to. However, these are all aesthetic to the purpose: your scene must present a character living in a situation. I tell my students that your test fight should look like an excerpt from a show: the audience should be wondering where the rest of the performance is and, ideally, be asking you where they can buy tickets. Yes, the fight must be well-executed technically, but it must also tell a story, or else you are missing out on half of the art form of STAGE combat.

How do you prepare for the acting portion of the test fight? You will receive acting coaching as you prepare for the fight, but in most cases* you are not receiving in-depth acting classes and are expected to have some comfort with acting before you attend the workshop. If you’re not an actor, seek out an acting coach and have a few private sessions before the workshop begins. A few topics to cover might include how to analyze a script and build a character. If possible, work on dialogue so that you can practice engaging with your scene partner. However, if there are no other options, monologues will work, too. If you are an actor, grab a fellow actor (grab a coach or some kind of outside eye, too, if you like) and work on an emotionally engaging scene. Get used to diving into that deep emotional place, allowing yourself to be affected, and then practice letting it go. I firmly believe that our sources of fatigue in this work are not only the physical strain, but also the mental strain when we aren’t able to leave the scene behind and step back into our own lives. Again, dialogue work is ideal, but monologues can be helpful, too. The key is to dig into some of those dark places, roll around in them, and then step back out again.

It helps to think of your test fight as a one-night-only performance, but still, we all feel the pressure. It can feel more like an audition. It’s a short scene (3 minutes or less, including the fight), there’s a desire to do your best, and you usually get only one go at it.** For that reason, practicing your audition technique will be useful. With a coach is best, but if that’s not available, two books that cover this material are Auditioning: An actor-friendly guide by Joanna Merlin and Audition by Michael Shurtleff. They have different ways of approaching scene preparation for an audition, but they’re both very useful. If you’re going to read both, I suggest starting with Merlin’s book, and then following up with Shurtleff’s.

The acting process is a personal one and everyone develops their own methods. How you choose to prepare your scenes is entirely up to you. The key points though are to fully engage in the moment, be affected by your partner, and then drop the scene when you’re done. If you practice this before the workshop, that’s a layer of proficiency you can build on your own time. You’ll have fewer new skills to rehearse, and your focus can be more fully in the moment with your scene partners.

*Every instructor and every workshop has a different amount of acting coaching and various styles. My favourite workshop as a student was with Tim Klotz and Lawrence Carmichael of Youngblood who introduced me to their unique training system for combining fight training and acting principles.

**In some cases, if time allows, the adjudicators may ask you to repeat the scene or just one segment of it. They may need you to clarify something that was maybe a bit muddy, or they may simply be seeking to remove some of the “audition” feeling. Keep in mind that your adjudicators have seen your progress throughout the workshop. A single mistake will not ruin your chances of passing. If mistakes are made, it’s how you handle those mistakes that are the test, not whether mistakes happen or not. Perfection is an illusion. This is an art form. Variation is integral to expression.

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